CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Larry Fedora walked off the field following North Carolina’s first live scrimmage of the spring Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., his running back, A.J. Blue, passed by on his way to media obligations. The Tar Heels’ head coach cracked at his veteran tailback that no one should be allowed to talk to the media that “dropped his ball.” Both burst into big smiles.
Blue also made light of his fumble in his post-game interview, saying he thought he played “great except for putting the ball on the ground.”
It’s these types of comments that seem to signal the elephant in the room, though: When replacing soon-to-be NFL running back Gio Bernard, near perfection is the expectation. That’s the territory that comes with replacing arguably the top running back in the nation a season ago.
But for North Carolina’s offense in 2013, it’s not only about replacing Bernard’s 1,228 yards on the ground and 490 receiving, which was never going to be easy for head coach Larry Fedora in Year Two of implementing his break-neck, can-never-snap-it-too-quickly offensive scheme in Chapel Hill. It’s also about replacing projected top-10 pick offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and future NFL offensive linemen Brennan Williams and Travis Bond, further augmenting his challenge of duplicating an offense that ran for 2,326 yards a season ago.
As quarterback Bryn Renner says, there has to be a balance between strength at running back and at offensive line for the running game to succeed and Blue admitted that the loss of the Big Three is a question mark, but he’s liked what he’s seen out of Landon Turner, who got a lot of playing time last season once Williams went down midseason, and redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson who both appear in line to start.
“I’m not going to say I was worried about it but missing Travis, Brennan and Coop, that was a big part of the success of our offense last year,” Blue said. “So the guys filling the void, doing whatever they can do, that was a big part that I was kind of concerned about and today I felt satisfied.”
If Thursday night and last season are any indication, Fedora could be just fine at the running back position, too. Both Romar Morris and Blue averaged north of five yards per carry at 5.6 and 5.3, respectively, and offer differing running styles. Morris is your lightning quick, former track star turned running back that quarterback Renner said is probably faster than Bernard. Blue’s the downhill, veteran back that coaches can trust to keep their quarterback upright.
Both styles were on display Thursday night. Blue took a screen 80 yards on only the fourth play of the scrimmage, and Morris responded a couple series later with a 98-yard dash of its own.
“We’ve got three guys, Blue, Romar and Khris (Francis) who have really been working hard. Where we stand right now is Blue would go out there with the first unit just like he did tonight unless after this scrimmage we evaluate it and something changes,” Fedora said. “We’re going to make depth chart changes at all positions on Monday so we’ll see after the film tonight.”
Perhaps pushing Blue over the top has been his embracing of the leadership role, Fedora said. Sure, Renner as a forever vocal character and a third-year starter at quarterback is the de facto leader of the offense, but Blue’s stepped up too to start his senior year.
“He’s the leader on the offense right now. Him and Bryn are probably the two guys who have stepped up and been leaders,” Fedora said. “He’s a hard-nosed runner. He does a great job in pass protection. He’s going to put his pads down and run behind his shoulder pads, and he can catch the football and make plays.”
Regardless of the starter, replacing Bernard’s 19 all-purpose touchdowns and 6.7 yards per carry won’t be a one-man show.
“In the running back room we basically say next man up,” Morris said. “We’re not really focusing on Gio leaving, we’re just trying to make big plays together.”
That’s not to say Bernard doesn’t leave a wealth of departed wisdom though. Neither Morris nor Blue took much time in answering what about Bernard’s game they hoped to take away.
“Patience at most, because Gio was a very patient back,” Morris said. “He used to tell me that if it wasn’t there at the beginning, it would be there later at the end of the game and don’t worry about it, just be patient.”
Added Blue: “Patience. Gio with every characteristic in his game I think patience was the best. So much of his film he knows how to set up blocks, he’s patient and when you’re patient it works out. When you learn the speed of the game, it makes it better.”
There are not only big shoes to fill with Bernard’s patience but also his punt returning ability, where he had two touchdowns including the call that will forever go down in North Carolina football folklore of Bernard dashing up the Kenan Stadium sidelines to beat NC State.
They have a long way to go based on Thursday night’s scrimmage: botching three punts and rotating in numerous players in an attempt to shore up the position heading into the fall.
“Well, did we catch one tonight?” Fedora questioned when asked if he was concerned about the position. “Are you concerned? I’m concerned. Yeah, we got a long way to get in that position. A long way to go.”
At this point in spring practice, there should be holes. That’s to be expected, but there are also all the ingredients for North Carolina to challenge Clemson as the ACC’s top offense with candidates for preseason First-Team All-ACC consideration in quarterback Renner, left tackle James Hurst, tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Quinshad Davis, and the opportunity is there for them to put themselves in the national discussion from the offset with a Thursday night date at South Carolina to start the season.
“First game is a big opportunity to show the world what type of offense we’re going to, be what type of team we’re going to be, the way we handle adversity, and the things that we want to portray for the rest of the season,” Blue said.
That’s leadership. And that’s why A.J. Blue could be the guy that softens the blow of the departure of one of the greatest tailbacks to strap on the interlocking NC.